The phrase "a documentary on Elliott Smith" must induce a twinge of post-traumatic stress in fans of the late singer-songwriter, not to mention those who actually knew him. The last time someone made a movie about him, it dwelled on the spiral of depression and drugs that consumed the end of his life and the grisly, still-disputed details of his final moments.
When he signed on to produce another film about Smith, Kevin Moyer knew people were closed to talking about him, especially in Portland. He was one of them. An acquaintance of Smith's from his days at Lincoln High School, Moyer had turned down a lot of the same interviews. At some point, though, he realized if the right people refused to tell Smith's story, the wrong ones would.
But Heaven Adores You, which opens this year's Reel Music festival, is more than a primer on Smith's life. It is a mesmeric piece of filmmaking that often steps aside from its own narrative and allows the quiet power of the music to speak for itself. WW spoke to Moyer, who also served as the film's music supervisor, about persuading his peers to go on camera, the trove of unreleased material featured in the movie and navigating the more sensitive aspects of Smith's biography.
Willamette Week: How well did you know Elliott?
Kevin Moyer: Elliott was older than me, by about four years. We went to same high school. I lived out on Skyline at the time with my parents. We were so far out, with no public transit, and we weren't affiliated with any high school. They took all the kids out there and sprinkled us into different high schools, and part of that was they had to send a school bus to come get us. I was the only kid on my street who went to Lincoln, and they'd send this giant school bus up Germantown Road to get me. It was a weird Portland thing. The year before I went to Lincoln High School, I was being shuttled around by this bus, which would be empty except for me. What it would do is head downtown and pick up people from Lincoln. The two schools were off by a certain amount of time, so I'd just get off the bus and hang at Lincoln, and that's where I met with those guys. That was a long way of saying, basically, they were older than me, and I met them in front of the high school, at the bus stop.
I would kind of follow those guys around a little bit. I eventually released some of Elliott's music years later. And J.J. Gonson, Heatmiser's manager, would sneak me on the guest list so I could go see Heatmiser shows. So I wouldn't say I was best friends with Elliott by any means, but I was in that crowd, as a younger kid kind of hanging out. I remember we would talk about him coming from Texas, he was a new kid in Portland, and I felt like I was new to Portland, too, because I was coming from Skyline and going downtown for the first time. But I remember he was super smart, way above his grade. He'd be talking about Russian literature, and I'd be like, "Dude, I don't know what you're talking about. I was playing Q-Bert five minutes ago. I don't know Dostoevsky, I know Q-Bert."
How did you come to be involved with the film?
Portland was kind of closed down to talking about Elliott, and I was one of them. Back when Elliott died, there were a lot of sensational articles concentrating on how he died, and it was kind of hurtful, and just a mess, all the stuff you don't want to read and hear. A few years later, I remember seeing a YouTube video where someone went down to the Figure 8 wall the day after he died and shot the candles and people writing on the wall, and basically the memorial. And I remember that being the one piece during that time period that hit me in a good way. This is not concentrating on the sensational aspects or who did what or didn't do what, it was just showing people that cared displaying affection and emotion, and it was set to his music. It was really well done and beautiful, and it just felt right.
Fast forward 10 years later, two guys are working on a Kickstarter, and it's sort of a fan film with Elliott on the periphery. The original intent was to look at other musicians who were influenced by Elliott. I watched their Kickstarter video, and I connected the dots. It was the same person who made that video years before. That's what compelled me to reach out and go, "Can I help you guys? It seems like you're coming at this from the right place." That was Nickolas Rossi, the director, and J.T. Gurzi, the other producer. Those guys flew to Portland, and we sat down at the Low Brow Lounge and I kind of grilled them. "Why do you like Elliott? What's your intentions?" Just kind of checking them out. I came away thinking they were OK, and weighing and balancing it with wanting to get the focus back on where it belongs. Elliott rarely talked about his own personal life, especially to the media but not even friends unless you got really close to him. He wanted it to be about the music. So I kind of wanted to get it back to that. People die every day. People do drugs every day. There's all sorts of tragedy in the world. But why should we care, anyway? What makes him so different? I wanted to tell the story of why we loved him and why he mattered and why he still matters today. I offered to them, that's what I've always wanted to do and no one has done it since. That's when I started introducing them to the Portland people and mutual friends. We shifted it to be about Elliott, and then it just went from there.
Then those two guys and I had a Kickstarter budget of $15,000, which was good and fine when it was a fan film. But when we switched it up and had it become an Elliott film, that wasn't going to come close to covering the costs. Elliott's not with us, so we had to use a lot of third party media, and all of that has licensing rights. Then we wanted to use a lot of his music. We basically wanted Elliott to speak for himself, through his words and his music. Somehow, we amazingly made that $15,000 stretch through the entire production process. We were sleeping on people's couches, borrowing cameras, getting favors where we could, borrowing stuff where we were allowed, and we basically got through the whole production process on that Kickstarter budget. The fourth person who came aboard was Marc Smolowitz. He's an award-winning film guy from San Francisco, and this is what he does. We brought him on to help us finish it, and he's been doing the distribution and festival stuff for us.
Tell me about getting Elliott's friends and family to speak in the film.Was the previous film a burden on persuading people to go on camera?
That other project was definitely an obstacle. A lot of people felt burnt by it. But a lot of these people I had relationships with already, or we had mutual friends in common, or they knew me from releasing Elliott's music previously. But being someone who was from that crowd was a huge help. They appreciated I was coming from the same place they were. I was asked to do that Gil Reyes documentary [Searching for Elliott Smith] and said no, as I've said no to almost everything else, as did a lot of them. But being from Portland, knowing the same people and having the same sensitivities as they did, put me in a place to have these conversations with them. We wanted to do a project by and with the people who knew him best. None of us were talking to the media about it, then we were complaining when the media was paitning him in a light or focusing on things we didn't like. If you want something done, you have to be a part of it. You can't not be a part of it and complain. So we had to say, "Hey, I know where you're coming from. I feel the same way, but it's time for us to speak for him, and on behalf of him, where we can, and steer it back to the Elliott we knew. Because right now, people are talking about him who didn't know him, and they're adding to the Elliott myth. If we can say our piece and do it in an accurate and balanced way, and help flesh out the other side of things, that'd be great.â
It wasn't easy. It wasn't, "Will you do this?" "Yes." It was a lot of long conversations, a lot of commiserating, a lot of talking about sensitive things and people explaining what they're not comfortable with and what they have issues with, and building a trust there, then saying, âDo you trust us? Can we do this?â
Tell me about compiling the music and choosing where to place the songs.
I'm friends with Larry [Crane, Elliott Smith's archivist], and I had released Elliott's music previously, so I had already seen into the vault of what was out there. So I had a good base knowledge to start with. And then I had also seen into the Universal vault, so I knew what Universal had, too. It was a lot of digging into the music and seeing what might fit, and what helped us tell the story. I had a list, and I whittled that down to about 150 tracks. Not all of them were studio [recordings], some were demos, some were cassettes of rehearsals, some were live performances, some were early versions. I had a whole lot to choose from.
You look at it from different points of view. This movie had to speak to two audiences at one time: the people who never heard of Elliott Smith and might be interested, and the super hardcore fans who already knew his whole catalogue and the B-sides and demos and all that. So we had to use some of these accessible songs. You have to use "Miss Misery" because of the Academy Awards, and you have to use [songs from] the studio albums because they're great songs. But you also want to put stuff on there for the hardcore fans, like the alternate versions and demos and stuff like that. So it's a juggling act, really. You also have to look at it as far as what tells your story. We used his musical output as tent poles to tell the story. We started in Texas and showed him making music with Texas friends, and then we move all the way to the album he was working on when he died. Each chapter is that studio release or musical output at the time. So we looked for music that was speaking to the story we were telling and the evolution as an artist. On top of that, you also have to consider the technical side of things. When you have all these people talking about Elliott, you can't have a whole lot of songs with too many vocals, you have to have some instrumentals in there. So there are really four or five different aspects that are all concerns when picking music to use for this thing. We went in, looked at what we had and what worked. At the end, the thing that drives it the most is, "Is it a good song and representative of what we're trying to do?"
So I culled that list to 150, and at this point we'd shot all the interviews. Our director, Nickolas, was in New York, and he was huddled up in his apartment, chain-smoking, putting together this edit, and he would mail it back to me and J.T., and we'd build this story from there. As he was doing that, we were sending him music. "Hey, this could work for this part." It was probably a two- or three-week period where I was sending him two or three songs per day. I didn't give it all to him at once because I didn't want to overload him. I wanted him to be able to digest each one and let each track stand on its own. I think it was like Christmas morning for him, because a lot of them were unreleased songs no one had ever heard before. I'd email them over, and be like, "Hey, the vibe of this would work well for this scene, or the lyrics in this could be really interesting for this part." Or just interesting things: This is a real cool one he did with [Heatmiser's] Neil Gust. And then Nickolas would do the same thing on his end. He's adding his own creative filter to the same thing. He's getting them and seeing how they'd fit with what he's putting together. That was kind of our process.
There's a lot of unreleased material in this movie. Was there anything you uncovered that really surprised you?
There was one song that had three different versions: There was an Elliott Smith version, a high-school band version and a Heatmiser version—stuff like that where there were different versions and you can see him evolving as an artist. You've got some early versions where he sounds like Joe Strummer or he sounds like Elvis Costello, then you wait a few years and you hear him working on these songs again, and he's got different lyrics or he's singing them differently. There was stuff like that where you see him evolving. It's something he did often, he kept going back to old pieces of work and reworking them and reinventing them. Another example, and one that's in the film, is a high school song called "Don't Call Me Billy," which ended up becoming "Fear City" years later. There's another one in there that's actually in the film that people probably think is my score but it's Elliott and Neil, this really jazzy number. It almost sounds like Money Mark and the Beastie Boys or something. I asked Neil about it and he barely even remembered it.
Can you talk about the decision to use the unreleased high school song "I Love My Room" over the end credits? Seems like an odd song to conclude with.
Nickolas put that song on the end credits, and I had the same reaction you just said: "Shouldn't we be sending them out of the theater with a better song? This is the last, lasting memory they're going to have leaving the theater. Shouldn't we use something more from the wheel well of Elliott's music?" And Nickolas felt really strong about using that really young one. I've got to say, we were at odds in our conversation. But he thought it was the right thing to do, and I came to agree with him. I think his thought was that it was something that goes to the heart of Elliott and shows you, "This is him as a kid." You hear his lyrics and you see what he's written, and it sounds funny because it's such a young voice, but you look at the words and it's pretty mature for that age. So I think it had something to do with sending them out of the theaters and going, "Listen, this is where it all began." I'm glad we end with that, and it's something that's really interesting to hear. Otherwise people wouldn't be able to hear that [song].
And I don't know if this takes a little bit of the magic away, but from a technical and music licensing standpoint, when you use the song that's in the closing credits, the price multiplies by 10. Since that was a young kid song, not owned by a label, that was helpful. That definitely wasn't the incentive—the motivation was there for Nikolas to use before he even knew that aspect.
The movie tiptoes around certain sensitive details of Smith's life and death.
I feel like we addressed everything, we just didn't go too deep into some of them. We definitely wanted to be accurate, and we didn't want to go in and start ripping off Band-Aids and causing new wounds for these people who are still healing. At the same time, we didn't want to put a rainbow, smiley-faced bandage over things, either. There were a lot of conversations about how to do things and not take any one side. At the end of the day, that's not the movie we were making. We didn't have any inside information on what may have happened to him the day he died. We didn't have that and we didn't look for that, so we didn't think it'd be fair to go too deeply down one road when we really don't know what happened. We as producers and even as friends didn't know that aspect, so as a film and a project, we didn't have anything to offer there. We wanted to acknowledge it, and show how it affected everything else in his life and creative output, but it just wasn't the movie we wanted to make.
Along the same lines, there was a lot of things we wanted to go into as far as the songwriting and how he would work as an artist and how he would craft a song. But at the end of the day, you have to tell the story for the people who don't know Elliott. What we ended up deciding was, we're not making an investigative film that looks into what he did or did not do in his personal life and when he died; we're not going to make an educational film that'll teach you how he wrote his songs. What we really wanted to do is make you feel. We wanted to do what his music did, and give you feeling and emotion. Early on, we decided we're not doing an investigation or an education, we're just going to make this a film that makes you feel and hopefully appreciate his music. I think that's why a lot of it feels like a music video. There are a lot of parts where you're in a dreamlike state and the music is just surrounding you. We do a lot of pauses where the talking heads stop for a moment and you're just listening to the music and looking at the scenery. That was to emphasize that feeling and emotion and let the music do the talking for him. It becomes really dreamlike and surreal, almost like you're looking out a car window, listening to the radio on a long road trip. We wanted to give the feeling of what you get when you're listening to Elliott's music, when you're sitting in your room with your headphones on, and all the imagery that might be going on in your own head. We wanted to do the same thing on the screen. Once you start going in that direction, going too far deep into the other stuff just seems abrasive.
Nowhere in the film is his death specifically referred to as a suicide, and the title cards describing his death are very matter of fact. Were there conversations specifically about how exactly to address his death?
There was a lot of conversation about how to do that properly, accurately and respectfully. Both opinions are out there, and we didn't want to chase one side or another. What we set out to do was just state the facts. The title cards, that wording was very meticulous, because we didn't want to lean any one way. We wanted it to be absolutely accurate, but we wanted it to be fair. The title cards are things that, no matter who believes what, everybody agrees on: He died from a stab wound to the heart. He didn't have any drugs in his system. We wanted to state the facts that, no matter what people's opinions are, the statements made in the film are the ones we can all agree on.
We wanted to make it about his life rather than his death. We wanted to make the point of, Elliott had this wonderful life where he had this amazing creative output, and the last 30 minutes of his life should not be the focus. What about the other 34 years? But you can't ignore it, either. We talk about the death right up front in the start of the film, so the context is there all the way through. If this were some summer blockbuster, that would've been the cliffhanger at the end. But that's not the movie we were making. We wanted proper context for why people are talking about him, and maybe why the look on their faces is there, because their friend is no longer here.
There's a lot of location photography in Portland, and a lot of is very industrial. Were you trying to evoke a feeling of Old Portland, the Portland Elliott lived in?
I don't think we were intentionally trying to look "industrial." We were just going to places that were Elliott related, and that's what they were. There's a lot of places in the film that are there for specific reasons in relation to Elliott, and we don't say what they are. We don't have a card that comes up and says, "This was the Heatmiser house." But you can still get that impression, because we talk about Heatmiser and show this house. Nickolas and J.T. were the cinematographers, so all the beautiful imagery you see were done by Nickolas and J.T., and it's one of my favorite things about the film. I think they did such a beautiful job of it. The bar was pretty high. We discussed that, âIf youâre pairing this with Elliottâs music, it has to look good.â So thatâs all on them, and they did a great job.
The movie is also really about Portland, and I see Elliott as representing a Portland that has faded somewhat. Do you agree with that?
First and foremost, we wanted to make it a love letter to Elliott, and people have come up to us and said it's a love letter to Portland as well, and I totally agree with that, but we never set out to make a love letter to Portland. I think that comes across because he was so Portland and such a big part of it, and such a big part of us, that when you're talking about Elliott and showing beautiful footage of Portland, and his music is so evocative of Portland anyway, they go hand in hand. Is Portland a place that's had Elliott's influence fade? He's no longer here, obviously, so he's no longer directly influencing us, but I don't think so. I think Elliott's still really felt here. I think his music still stands up and is just as good as the day it was recorded. Every time I hear an Elliott song, it sounds like our old high school or it sounds like Division Street—it sounds like Portland. I think Portland still very much feels like Elliott as well. A lot of the places are gone. La Luna's no longer here. X-Ray Cafe's no longer here. Satyricon's gone. But Division Street is still here. Alameda, Condor Avenue. All the people he made music with—Jackpot Studios is still around. Sean Croghan's making music. Pete Krebs is making music. Larry Crane is recording music. Joanna Bolme's making music, and so is Tony Lash. Everything is the same, but changed.
What's your favorite Elliott song, and did you manage to get it into the movie?
It's funny, I don't know if Nickolas or I got our favorite songs into the movie. When we were working on it, Nickolas had always loved "Satellite." I think it was on a mixtape some girl gave him when he lived in Portland, and I thought for sure he was going to try to cram that in there. We even had an alternate version of "Satellite," and neither one made it in. I think that speaks volumes to Nickolas not wanting to make it about him.
I don't know what mine would be. It changes daily. There's a whole section in the movie about "Tomorrow Tomorrow" that we had to edit out. Just the technical savvy of that song, and how crazy it is, that it's one guy finger-picking this song that's crazy complex on a 12-string guitar. I don't know if a lot of people know that, but it makes it even crazier.
What do you hope the casual fans or the uninitiated take away from the film, and what do you help the die-hards get?
I hope people who've never heard of Elliott before leave and go buy his albums, and I hope the people who already have all the albums come away with a greater understanding of who he was as told by the people closest to him. There are some demos and alternate versions in there for them to kind of chew on and add to their own hardcore knowledge. But I think it's the same for both groups. If we can keep Elliott alive through his music, I think that's the best thing possible. If we can make it so he's not forgotten, and he gets the recognition he's always deserved as a genius musician, that's the intent of the film—to keep his legacy alive, and hopefully attract some new fans.
Since this project's happened, we've gotten interest all over the world. It's amazing to see how big of a draw he still has, 10 years later, from all over the world. Being from Portland, it's a little easy to go, "Oh, Elliott Smith, he's from here, and everyone knows him and thinks he's great." But when you have kids from Israel and Korea and Afghanistan, all these crazy places where you think Elliott didn't quite reach, it isn't true. His music still stands up, and I think it's universal enough that new fans are coming aboard daily. I think that's what he would want, and that's what we're trying to help him do, even though he's not here now. Hopefully our film helps parlay that.
Other Reel Music Highlights
The Winding Stream
Director Beth Harrington, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., spent a decade making the definitive film about country music's greatest dynasty, the Carter-Cash family, for which she gained unprecedented access and conducted one of the last interviews with Johnny Cash, three weeks before his death in 2003. 7 pm Saturday, Oct. 11.
Time Is Illmatic
In 1994, Queens rapper Nas dropped Illmatic, one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Twenty years later, multimedia artist One9, along with the artist himself, breaks the record open, delving into its creation from both personal and sociopolitical angles. 9:30 pm Saturday, Oct. 11.
20,000 Days on Earth
A straightforward documentary about a twisted genius like Nick Cave would've been a much stranger choice than what Iain Forsythe and Jane Pollard ended up doing: investigating the life and work of rock's Big Bad Wolf by blurring fact and fiction with scenes that are "staged, but not scripted." 7 pm Sunday, Oct. 12.
Compulsive cameraman Lance Bangs began collecting footage for his film about indie-rock enigmas Slint long before he had any concept of what it was going to become. Many years later, he's managed to solve the mystery of a band that seemingly vanished before many knew it existed. 7 pm Tuesday, Oct. 14.
Strictly Sacred: The Story of Girl Trouble
A chronicle of three decades in the staunchly independent career of Tacoma garage-rockers Girl Trouble. The film doubles as an homage to the indomitable DIY spirit of Pacific Northwest rock as a whole. 9 pm Thursday, Oct. 16.
A full-on swan dive into the heavenly, disorienting fuzz of shoegaze, a genre that's exerted a tremendously wide impact but whose history, up to this point, has remained slippery. Come for the head trips, stay for the rare on-camera interview with the Brian Wilson of dream pop, My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields. 7 pm Monday, Oct. 20.
All screenings at Whitsell Auditorium. For a complete Reel Music schedule, see nwfilm.org.